If you have kids in your life and you want to help them discover the physics of the world around us, don’t propose “a chance to learn something.” Even the promise that “this is going to be fun” arouses suspicion. Epic, cool, neat seem to resonate.
“Tricks” is another engaging word, and at www.physics.org/tricks the Institute of Physics, based in London, presents five favorite tricks performed by their “physics in the field” traveling team. And their Marvin & Milo page, featuring a cartoon cat and dog, has an archive and ongoing series of simple experiments for the very young (go to www.physics.org/marvinandmilo.asp).
In the words of its creator, www.sciencetoymaker.org is “the digital equivalent of a messy workshop. If you poke around . . . you’ll find good stuff.” Easy toys take about a half hour to build and “are suitable for young kids, with a little help here and there.” Advanced toys take a couple of hours to build with the help of a teenager or adult. Be prepared for failure on the first try. Most toys can be built from materials found around the house or cheap to buy.
Instructions to make toys are clear at www.sci-toys.com, as are explanations of the underlying physics. Many of the toys, however, require the purchase of materials. The numerous links to suppliers make it clear this is a commercial site.
You and the kids can still watch the quiet, real-time demonstrations of Don Herbert from his 1951–1965 television series, "Watch Mr. Wizard." Some episodes are free at www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfTaH13zAUA, or you can buy the whole series at www.mrwizardstudios.com/store.htm. It will be difficult, however, to duplicate the experiments; some of the equipment is now obsolete.
At the high end are Cubelets from Modular Robotics (www.modrobotics.com/cubelets)—magnetic, electronic building blocks, each with a small computer inside. A starter kit is $159.95 and the standard kit is a cool $520. The National Science Foundation (NSF) helped fund the development of these little critters, which you can see in action at www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/modularrobots.jsp?WT.mc_id=USNSF_51. As NSF program manager Glenn Larsen says, “The next generation of citizens needs to understand complex systems like our ecosystem and our economy. Cubelets lays the foundation for this understanding by putting the building blocks of complex systems in children’s hands.”
What a radical idea.